As Cochran City Firefighters, These MGA Students Get Unique Experiences and Backup Career Paths

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2021 12:00 AM
Categories: School of Aviation | Students | Pressroom

Cochran, GA

Shown with Cochran Fire Chief Brock Wilcher, wearing a white uniform shirt, are some of the MGA students currently working part-time as state-certified firefighters for the city. Left to right are Darryl Poole, 21, of Atlanta; Noah Kincaid, 19, of Atlanta; Elija Coles, 21, of Savannah; Andris Perri, 19, of Westport, Conn.; and Austin Woods, 21, of Swainsboro. The students are aviation majors except for Perri, who plans to transfer to pursue a fire service degree. MGA’s aviation programs are based on the Eastman Campus but many aviation students take some of their coursework on the Cochran Campus and live in the residence halls there.

Taking a break from their studies one day, Middle Georgia State University students Noah Kincaid and Andris Perri skateboarded into downtown Cochran and began tooling around near the old county jail on Beech Street.

They weren’t sure what to think when a young man wearing a firefighter’s uniform approached them.

Andrew Daniels, who turned out to be a fellow Middle Georgia State (MGA) student, introduced himself, made polite small talk, and then asked a completely unexpected question: had the two ever thought about becoming firefighters?

“Uh, not really,” they said, more or less at the same time.

But intrigued by what Daniels had to say, Kincaid and Perri explored the idea. Several months later they had completed training and joined Daniels as state-certified firefighters for the city of Cochran, where one of MGA’s five on-site campuses is located.

Kincaid and Perri aren’t alone. Currently, eight MGA students are each working two 12-hour shifts per week as firefighters with Cochran Fire & Emergency Services. Over the past few years, 15 other MGA students have also worked the unique part-time job while finishing their degrees – and a few have gone on to become full-time firefighters in other Georgia cities.

It was Cochran Fire Chief Brock Wilcher who three years ago came up with a plan to recruit MGA students to supplement his full-time crew. (Henry Whitfield, an MGA community director who serves with the chief on the local Chamber of Commerce board, helped make the necessary contacts.) Wilcher got the idea from the Auburn, Ala., Fire Division, which for 50 years has recruited university students to train for part-time firefighter jobs.

“To my knowledge, we’re the only fire department in this state to do anything like this,” said Wilcher, 38, a Georgia Southern University graduate who spent 10 years with the Centerville Fire Department before joining the Cochran service in 2018 as a lieutenant. He became department chief in 2019.

Small cities and towns across the U.S. once relied on volunteer firefighters to round out the paid ranks – or even to fully staff fire service in the tiniest of the locales. But volunteers have been harder to come by in recent years because fewer people are willing or able to take on that kind of strenuous unpaid side labor while working full-time jobs and raising families. Wilcher is not alone among fire chiefs unable to find enough volunteers that can be relied upon to regularly work a few shifts to relieve full-timers and ensure stations are staffed 24/7.

“We needed help,” he said.

So Wilcher’s plan targeted MGA students on the Cochran Campus who are willing to try new things, put in hard training, get a taste of a potential career path, and make a little money (slightly more than minimum wage for 24 hours of work per week) to help them pay for school.

Most of the students attracted to the opportunity so far have been MGA aviation majors (if you like airplanes you probably like fire trucks, too) and nearly all have been men. Three women students have participated in the program, though none serves currently.

Student applicants go through an intense interview process and are tested for physical fitness. Those selected then go through a strenuous training and education regimen for three days per week until they’ve accumulated 360 hours of specialized instruction. At that point they can take written and physical-fitness tests that, if passed, qualifies them to become certified firefighters in Georgia.

“They could work at any fire department in the state,” Wilcher said.

MGA students in the current class of firefighters said they were drawn to the opportunity for a variety of reasons. Among them are the esteem in which citizens generally hold firefighters and the chance to gain a new skillset.

“You can’t go wrong learning new things,” said Elija Coles, 21, who is in the flight track of MGA’s B.S. in Aviation Science and Management, as are most of the other students currently in Wilcher’s program. “Aviation is my number one goal but this is a great backup plan.”

As a child, Austin Woods, 21, dreamed of being a pilot and a firefighter. “I just didn’t think I could do both at the same time,” he said. “But here I am.”

Darryl Poole, 21, said he was bored in his free time and looking for something to do. His roommate was in the firefighter program so he’d heard about it, but it wasn’t until he helped put out a minor fire in a Cochran Campus residence hall laundry room that Poole decided to give it a try.

“I like doing something where I can help people,” he said.

Wilcher fills each shift with a mix of full-timers and MGA students. When not responding to alarms, the students spend portions of their two 12-hour shifts doing what full-time firefighters do – cleaning the station house, washing the fire trucks, cutting grass, cooking meals, washing dishes, exercising, and training. When they finish those tasks, they can use time they aren’t sleeping to study, do laundry, play video games, or watch television.

About 75 percent of the calls the students respond to are medical in nature – including some on the Cochran Campus. As first responders, they’ve answered domestic violence calls, car accident calls, chemical leak calls, and – in one instance – a woman-in-early-labor call.  In that case, Kincaid rode in the back of the ambulance carrying the woman to a Macon hospital so he could help the paramedic.

“It was mostly him telling me ‘do this’ or ‘push that button’ but it was an interesting experience,” he said.

The students have also responded to some minor structure and vehicle fires but, contrary to public perception, firefighters don’t fight all that many fires. Thanks to safety advances, structural fires of any size are less common than they once were. Still, the MGA students like the adrenaline rush that kicks in at the sound of the station house alarm and builds up as they pull out of the First Street station house in one of the city's two fire trucks.

“You never know what kind of call you’re going to get,” Kincaid said.

The students get at least two consecutive days off between shifts, which gives them plenty of time to focus on their MGA coursework. That’s part of what makes the job more attractive than, say, working part-time at a fast-food restaurant, where they would maybe make more money but lack consistently scheduled shifts or anything close to the camaraderie found among firefighters.

For example, the students get to join the full-time firefighters in participating in charitable and civic events around Cochran. One they are especially looking forward to this year is dressing in full uniform and walking one mile through downtown on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

The event will honor the memory of New York firefighter Stephen Siller, who had finished a shift on the morning of September 11, 2001, and was on his way to meet his brothers for a round of golf. Here’s the significance of the one-mile distance: when Siller heard on his scanner that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers, he tried turning his truck around to head back through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but law enforcement had by then closed it to vehicle traffic. Siller strapped on 60 pounds of firefighter gear and walked the one mile to the scene, where he later died when the North Tower collapsed.

“Firefighters are family,” Woods said. “It’s brotherhood.”

Wilcher acknowledged that students do make certain sacrifices to join the fire department.

“They are giving up free time,” he said, “and they are, like all firefighters, subject to random drug tests, so it’s not like other part-time jobs. When their peers say, ‘Let’s hang out,’ and it’s the night before a shift, they have to have the discipline to say no. This job takes dedication.”

The dedication of the students was on full display when city leaders honored Poole, Kincaid, Perri, and Woods as “Employees of the Month” for March, not long after the four passed their state firefighter certification tests.

Meanwhile, the success of his program has Wilcher dreaming even bigger.  

“I would love to have a fire station on the Middle Georgia State campus,” the chief said. “We could develop a fire science degree and teach the courses and serve students right there.”


Editor’s note: Currently enrolled MGA students interested in learning more about the Cochran firefighter training program can contact Chief Brock Wilcher at There are no openings right now but Wilcher said there may be one or two by fall 2021.